London’s Trellick Tower and a development debate

London’s Trellick Tower and a development debate

LONDON – When Barbara Heksel and her family moved into Trellick Tower in 1981, their friends thought they were crazy. Built in 1972, the London public housing project was known for its uncompromising Brutalist design and the criminality of its brooding concrete corridors, earning it the tabloid nickname “Tower of Terror.”

But for Heksels, Trellick was an opportunity. It offered a spacious two-bedroom flat with sweeping views over West London, a big upgrade from the cramped studio where the family had lived.

“We’re going to take it and make it our own,” Heksel, 70, recalled telling her husband when they first saw their place.

Mrs Heksel has lived there ever since, enjoying a home in a building that has gone from blight to icon. Designed by Ernö Goldfinger, the Hungarian-born architect whose buildings, legend has it, so offended Ian Fleming that he named one of the Bond villains after him, Trellick enjoys cult status. Its apartments are snapped up as soon as they are listed; the location is close to Notting Hill, one of London’s most expensive districts.

Now, however, residents fear that Trellick’s success has left it vulnerable. Last year they halted the construction of a 15-storey tower which the developers wanted to build between Trellick and a smaller neighboring block, Edenham Way.

“It’s outrageous,” said Molly Berentson-O’Donnell, 26, who grew up on the 16th floor. “Trellick is a free-standing tower and I think that makes it iconic. If you build in front of it, you will destroy the wonderful skyline.”

But for Kim Taylor-Smith, a councilor for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which held the contract for the new tower, there was little choice. “The feeling was that it was better to have a tall building and a lot of open space,” he explained.

Given the severe shortage of affordable housing in London and the valuable property occupied by Trellick, it is almost certain that someone will build on the site in the future. But the citizens would like to have their say.

“There’s one thing we want, and that’s cooperation,” said Keith Benton, 72, who has lived with his wife on the 31st floor since 2014 and helped lead the campaign against the new tower project.

Residents want to preserve the architectural quirks that have given Trellick its sense of community. For example, the plans for the new building would have necessitated the partial, if not total, removal of the property’s “graffiti hall of fame”—a freestanding wall located at the base of Trellick that has been a concrete canvas for street artists for more than 35 years.

The wall has deep emotional value: part of it has become a monument to the 72 people who died in 2017 in a catastrophic fire at nearby Grenfell Tower. Every June, around the anniversary of that tragedy, the residents gather at the wall to hold a “memorial jam”.

“After Grenfell, the council promised us that if there was anything in the plans we were against, they would go back to the drawing board,” Benton said.

Over time, Trellick has become safer and more attractive to potential buyers; there’s even a full-time concierge. But the growing desirability has worried residents. Many fear the building will only attract more developers to the surrounding neighborhood, destroying the character of the site.

“They claimed it wasn’t, but this is gentrification,” Benton said of the changed perception of the existing building.

Concerns about the new tower proposals prompted residents to form a “Save Trellick” campaign last fall. They shared information via social media and took turns standing at the tower entrance with petitions. In all, they gathered more than 3,000 signatures and secured a meeting with local authority representatives at Chelsea Old Town Hall in December.

Planned in the late 1960s to meet the soaring demand for housing, Trellick was supposed to represent a utopian future where families could live high above the smog, with every comfort at hand. Goldfinger’s designs included a nursery, a corner shop, a pub, a medical clinic and even a nursing home.

Today, at 50 years old, Trellick is regarded as an icon of Brutalist architecture, with a striking design that connects a thin service tower – housing laundries, lift shafts and a rubbish chute – to the main block every third floor by ‘sky bridges’.

The structure allows the duplex apartments to be larger, maximizing living space and reducing noise in what would become a “vertical village.” The 217 units are dovetailed, interconnected with Escher-like precision, meaning, in Ms. Heksel’s words, that “my upstairs neighbor is really two floors above me.”

In 1998, the government granted Trellick landmark status, guaranteeing that the tower would be preserved. “Trellick’s sinister reputation was always exaggerated,” Heksel said, noting, “it was fashionable to give it bad press.”

Five years ago, the local authority demolished Trellick’s care home, which was not under the same conservation order, arguing that it did not have adequate toilets.

That decision greatly upset the residents, who pointed out that Goldfinger had been inspired by the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier to create a building that met a lifetime of needs.

“It was beautifully designed and people loved it,” Mr. Benton said. “Think about it: When you’re old, do you want to move six miles away, where no one can visit you? Or do you want to be near the people you love?”

Developers proposed to build the new tower on the site of the nursing home. In addition to dividing the complex, residents argued that it would lead to overcrowding, straining already limited resources.

They also said public consultations on the project were not conducted in a transparent manner, leaving many feeling cheated.

“It all happened during lockdown,” Heksel said. “The consultations were done virtually. Many residents are old and not very technically savvy.”

The lingering fear among many of the tower’s residents is that they may suffer the same fate as the original residents of another Goldfinger tower, Balfron in East London. That block is now almost entirely privately owned, a result of property legislation passed by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980. The council cleared the tower when it was sold, promising residents the right to return, which turned out not to be the case.

The desire to build more homes has been driven by a housing crisis in the UK, particularly in London. In October 2021, around 250,000 were estimated to be on waiting lists for town halls in the city. But Trellick residents say the council’s efforts to develop the area around the tower are motivated by profit: For every new unit of public housing built, they note, the council gets 100,000 pounds, or about $120,000, from London’s mayor.

In an interview, Mr. Taylor-Smith acknowledged that “We have a statutory obligation to make sure the books balance every year.”

“The only way to pay for improvements,” he said, “is by building new homes.” These improvements include custom tweaks to features that are now deprecated.

Emotions ran high at the meeting with the municipal representatives in December. Residents claimed the designs for the new tower breached the council’s own guidelines, which stipulated that additions to an existing property must only be four to six storeys in height and should not require further demolition of buildings.

A few weeks later, the plans were withdrawn and the council promised that any future development would be more collaborative.

But even though the residents won that round, they are not resting easily.

“All we’ve ever done is stop them for a couple of years,” Mr. Benton said. “There’s no guarantee they won’t try again. We have to stay focused on what we want.”

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